How long does it typically take before a case settles or goes to trial?
One of the biggest questions people have when deciding whether it’s worthwhile to pursue a personal injury claim is simply:
How long will my lawsuit take?
This question often comes up when it seems like everything is moving at a snail’s pace and the medical bills are piling up.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer because there are a number of factors that can affect the length of litigation. But we’ve done our best to provide you with a brief overview of litigation, including the average time each step takes and the factors that might speed up or slow down the process.
How Long Will My Injury Claim Take?
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It generally takes 1-3 years to reach a settlement or receive a verdict in a personal injury case
Every personal injury case is different. As a result, it’s impossible to accurately predict how long your personal injury case will take to be resolved.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the findings:
- On average, tort trials reached a verdict 25.6 months from the date the lawsuit was filed.
- Among tort trials, product liability trials had the longest case processing time (averaging 35.1 months), followed by medical malpractice cases (averaging 33.2 months).
- The vast majority of tort cases are resolved prior to trial (only about 3% are actually disposed of by jury or bench trial verdict).
Let’s take a look at each step of the litigation process, including the factors that might speed up or slow down each step.
Step 1: Engage an attorney
The general rule of thumb is that you should consider hiring an attorney if you suffered a serious physical injury or you sustained other damages that exceed the amount allowed in small claims court.
Keep in mind that most initial consultations are free, so there’s really no downside to meeting with an attorney.
Lawyers are busy, so it may take a couple of weeks to meet with an attorney after reaching out. What’s more, the first attorney you meet with might not be the right attorney for you. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to start the process of engaging an attorney as soon as possible.
Step 2: Starting the case
A civil lawsuit doesn’t officially begin until you:
- File a complaint with the proper court and pay the associated filing fee, and
- Serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint and summons.
A complaint sets forth the facts of your case, the defendant’s liability, and how much money you’re demanding. A summons is simply a document that notifies the defendant that they’re being sued.
One of the first things your lawyer will do after agreeing to represent you is to determine the relevant statute of limitations. The statute of limitations determines the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for personal injury cases varies by state, but is generally somewhere between 1-3 years.
Keeping the statute of limitations in mind, your lawyer will begin drafting the complaint. It typically takes anywhere from 1 week to 1 year for your lawyer to draft a complaint and serve the defendant.
Here are some factors that may impact how long it takes to draft a complaint and serve the defendant:
- The complexity of the case, including the number of defendants
- Whether or not your lawyer makes the strategic decision to negotiate before filing the complaint
- Whether or not your lawyer has trouble serving the defendants (e.g., sometimes defendants can’t be located or attempt to evade service)
Step 3: Discovery process
The term “discovery” is used to describe the pre-trial process of exchanging information between parties to a lawsuit. This information may include:
- Police reports
- Medical records
- Security footage
- Company emails
Discovery also includes depositions. Depositions are opportunities for both parties to question each other and witnesses orally and under oath. Depositions take place in the presence of a court reporter who produces a written transcript of the testimony for all parties involved.
Discovery typically begins soon after the complaint is filed and usually continues until about 30 days before the start of trial.
Step 4: Court motions
Your lawyer and the defendant’s lawyer will typically file a number of pre-trial motions. Pre-trial motions ask the court to rule on certain specific issues, everything from the proper venue to discoverable documents.
Some pre-trial motions have more of an impact on the case (and take more time) than others. For example, a motion for summary judgment asks the court to dismiss the case and typically takes longer to draft and hear than, say, a motion to compel an attorney to turn over certain evidence.
Pre-trial motions can start as soon as the complaint is filed and typically continue right up until trial.
Step 5: Attempt settlement (negotiation)
The vast majority of personal injury cases are settled before trial. Your lawyer will probably start participating in settlement discussions soon after the initial discovery is received.
Although your attorney might not tell you about every settlement discussion, your attorney is always required to get your approval before rejecting or agreeing to a settlement offer.
Settlement negotiations can be as informal as between the 2 attorneys over the telephone or as formal as mediation or arbitration.
If your case isn’t settling right away, try not to fret. Most cases take time to settle. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a case to settle on the eve of trial.
Step 6: Go to trial
If your case doesn’t settle, it will go to trial.
In a civil trial, a judge or jury examines the evidence and decides whether the defendant should be held legally responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff.
A civil trial typically consists of 6 main phases:
- Choosing a jury
- Opening statements
- Witness testimony and cross-examination
- Closing arguments
- Jury instruction
- Jury deliberation and verdict
Trials typically last anywhere from 1-7 days.
Step 7: Verdict
After trial, the judge (in a bench trial) or jury (in a jury trial) will determine if the defendant is at fault for the accident and if so, how much the defendant is required to pay the plaintiff. This decision is called the verdict.
Step 8: Appeal
If either party disagrees with the verdict, they typically have the right to appeal. If the appeal is successful, there may be a new trial or settlement. An appeal typically has to be filed within 30 days of the trial court verdict.
Step 9: Collection
If the plaintiff is successful, collection of the judgment begins (or efforts to collect). The judgment may be a lump sum or it may be broken up into payments.
Factors that impact the length of litigation
Here are some of the many factors that might impact the length of litigation:
- Complexity of the case. A slip and fall case is relatively simple, whereas a medical malpractice case is typically more complex.
- Amount of damages. A case worth $1,000 will typically be resolved more quickly than a case worth $1 million.
- Severity of injuries. A case involving a sprained ankle will typically be resolved more quickly than a case involving brain damage or death.
- Caseload in your jurisdiction. Once you file a lawsuit, you are at the mercy of the courts regarding court dates, which may also change right up to the last moment.
- Your patience. Your case may be resolved quickly if you’re anxious to settle. If you’re willing to hold out for more money, your case may take longer.